If nothing else, Richard Gere's work with producer Oren Moverman has given him some of his best acting roles since the turn of the century. First in I'm Not There., Todd Haynes' impressionistic portrait of Bob Dylan; then in Moverman's own Time Out of Mind, as a man dealing with homelessness and mental illness on the streets of New York City; and now in Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer. Written and directed by Joseph Cedar, whose Footnote fell just short of A Separation as Best Foreign Language Film, Norman provides Gere with yet another opportunity to stretch his range.
Which is not to say that he disappears into the role, the way some of the best character actors can. Norman is always recognizably Gere -- you can't forget a face that's been in the public eye for so long -- but he is, for lack of a better word, nebbishy, which adjective I'm pretty sure has never been applied to Richard Gere before. He's a "fixer", which seems to amount to a professional go-between even when you'd rather he just go away.
Right from the beginning he's trying to get his nephew, Philip Cohen (Michael Sheen) to introduce him to big Wall Street movers-and-shakers like Wilf or Taub (Harris Yulin and Josh Charles), saying he knows a guy in the Israeli government -- he can't say exactly who right now -- who wants to cut some deal about withheld taxes and if he can just meet the guy with the right capital to invest...
But of course Norman doesn't "have an Israeli" in his pocket; he's also hustling to find one in time for the meeting he's hoping to set up. And though he doesn't find what he's looking for, he does meet the up-and-coming Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) outside Lanvin. They talk and relax, and Norman buys Micha a pair of $1200 shoes. And when, three years later, Micha turns out to be the new Prime Minister with a mission to make peace with the Palestinians once and for all, you can already see where this is going.
At times it feels almost like a caper movie, with Norman trying to get all the pieces in place to help his friend, Rabbi Blumenthal (Steve Buscemi) with a favor from Wilf for a favor from Micha for a favor from Philip for a favor from the rabbi, all without each other knowing about it in a plan that you're never sure quite makes sense, even when he explains his web of connections to an unfortunate Amtrak passenger (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who just wants to get some work done.
But it's either more complicated than the script gets into, or not as complicated as it seems. Either way, things never quite click, and the caper aspect feels unsatisfying. The oblique Israeli politics angle as well comes up short, though it might resonate better for an audience more in tune with the rhythms of the Knesset.
Instead, what Norman really offers is a study of a character you're never quite sure whether or not to root for. The schlubby, sad-sack bit makes us feel sympathetic, but at times it's hard not to see Norman as simply pathetic. It's hard to see how he even makes a living, seeming to be interested in approval and validation more than anything else. Cedar even offers us a younger version of the same kind of glad-hander (Hank Azaria) just to cement how creepy the whole thing can be.
And if nothing else it's fun to watch Gere exploring this character. Couple that with some of the same imaginative imagery that Cedar and his cinematographer Yaron Scharf deployed in Footnote and you've got a pleasant enough distraction, even if it's not the greatest film any of the principals have ever made.
Rating: 3 out of 5